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Demo Taped's latest album has a choir-influenced electronic soul sound. (Courtesy of Demo Taped)

ArtsATL’s top local albums of 2018

This year marked a period of transition for the arts community. With several art hubs including Mammal Gallery, Eyedrum and Murmur stuttering after a fatal fire in South downtown — or at least, until they can show the respective building’s fire codes are up to par — spirits were at an all-time low. But in the same spirit of Atlanta being culled from the ashes, music venues including 529, Buckhead Theatre, Masquerade and Philips Arena received face lifts. Because if there’s one thing we know about the city’s creative scene, it’s that life finds a way even in the darkest hour.

We’re lucky enough to live in a city of such life and light, with musicians who supply the perfect soundtrack to summer heat waves that melt the skyline or the next snowpocalypse that makes I-85 even more of a disaster to drive on — who make time stand still, even if just for a moment, and whose resilience and dedication continue to provide a supportive community.

The ArtsATL music team is excited to announce our baker’s dozen of local releases that deserve a shout out. And while the list stops at 13, there is no true number to be placed on the imitable talent this city welcomes. Keep exploring, and keep listening.  — Lauren Leathers, Music Editor

[Editor’s note: Albums are listed in no particular order.]

Demo Taped: Momentary 

Part of being a musician is finding someone to listen to your music — more specifically, label companies. Adam Alexander adopted the moniker Demo Taped to give a voice to all the long-lost tangible recordings that likely ended up buried deep under piles of papers on a desk or used as coasters in the break room when sent to labels. The EP dives head-first into self-doubt and overcoming one’s own flaws, as shown in the opening track “Insecure” when he states, “You claim your love is pure/You try to reassure me lately/I think I’ve been going crazy.” Organ arrangements and choir sounds shroud listeners with a veil of gospel and soul, making it clear that Alexander was born and raised in the church. Electronic soulful sounds meet soft vocals. Top it all off with R&B textures and positive, truthful lyrics to make it seem as though worries are a thing of the past — even if only for a moment. [LL]

Neighbor Lady: Maybe Later

Among the verses of “Let it Bleed,” the opening track of Maybe Later, Neighbor Lady’s debut singer Emily Braden reaches for a resolution that isn’t quite there yet. “I have to admit/I haven’t been on my best behavior,” Braden admits, her voice accompanied by the thunder of a sole, chugging guitar that launches into a full-fledged storm of melodic flourishes and percussive crashes. Simultaneously leaning into both the lighter and darker sides of twangy indie rock, Maybe Later’s sprawling folk-tinged soundscapes evoke a sense of travel, introspection and growth. It’s not all gray skies, though — spritely tracks like “Oh Honey” provide a piano-led romp on coming out stronger after an argument. Indebted to the sunny ballads of ‘70 AM radio and the punch of contemporary rock, Neighbor Lady’s joyous noise makes it one of the most endearing groups to come out of the city. [Jake Van Valkenburg]

Janelle Monae: Dirty Computer

Janelle Monae’s Dirty Computer welcomes listeners into the mind of an outsider. (Courtesy of Janelle Monae)

Janelle Monae has always had her eye on the future. In early 2010, she adopted the android persona Cindi Mayweather and blessed earthlings with The ArchAndroid, followed by The Electric Lady in 2013. And while her previous records address social and political topics, Dirty Computer is Monae’s debut as a human being — she’s ready for the world to see her for exactly who she is. The electro-pop album uses technology to bring attention to the barriers that still try to suppress those who refuse to conform to societal norms, as expressed in the opening track with lyrics like “Dirty computer walking by/If you look closer you’ll recognize/I’m not that special/ I’m broke inside/Crashing slowly, the bugs are in me.” In 14 defiant-yet-inviting tracks, Dirty Computer invites listeners to explore the circuit board of outsiders, painting a colorful image with words to give a voice to the voiceless. [LL]

Yukons: South of the Equator

Yukons creates music that speaks to the here and now, whether that’s sociopolitical frustrations or the anxieties that come with living daily life. Each song of debut album South of the Equator provides a cathartic release of anger and energy. The album is defined by righteous tension between chopped melodic phrases and rhythmic interplay on highlight tracks like “Pa’Lante” and “Today.” South of the Equator, sung in both English and Spanish, wastes no time bringing forth the band’s dynamic brand of hook-filled and guitar-heavy garage punk sound it refers to as Latinx expression rock. With firebrand live performances and singular creative vision, Yukons is the punk band we deserved in 2018. [JVV]

OkCello: Resolve

Backstage at ArtATL‘s Luminary Awards ceremony last January as cellist Okorie Johnson waited to perform, the Morehouse grad bubbled with enthusiasm as he talked about his upcoming album. He described the music as “a healing balm of hope.” When Resolve was released later in the year under his moniker OkCello, the reasons for his excitement were quickly apparent. Resolve makes smart use of loops, which allow Johnson to create bass-like rhythms that form the foundation of his songs. At the heart of the record are three improvisational meditations: Engage, Transition and Return, which feature Johnson alone on cello. The music isn’t quite jazz, and yet it is. It isn’t quite classical, and yet it is. It also shows a different side of Johnson, who steps out from his role as a sideman for the likes of De La Soul, India.Arie and Big Boi to make his own statement. Resolve is haunting, soothing, sad and utterly one of a kind. [Scott Freeman] 

Lunar Vacation: Artificial Flavors

Spearheaded by Grace Repasky (vocals), Lunar Vacation has crafted lush melodies since 2016 with a lineup of Maggie Geeslin (guitar), Connor Dowd (drums), John Michael Young (bass/guitar) and Matteo DeLurgio (keys). The group’s latest EP, Artificial Flavors, combines elements of lo-fi synth with sweeping and soothing vocals. The record provides a balancing act with one foot in the concrete jungle and the other deep in the beach on a summer vacation. The record gives nod to youthful years full of old-world charm, yearning, heartache and a total fear of social events. With a devotion to capturing thorny teenage emotions through layered songwriting and a swaying “pool rock” sound, Artificial Flavors qualified itself as a standout among some of the best music Atlanta had to offer this year. [Joseph Mosman]

Michelle Malone’s latest is a positive, dance-worthy album of self-celebration. (Courtesy of Michelle Malone)

Michelle Malone: Slings and Arrows

With plenty of slide guitar to boot, Michelle Malone’s latest album, Slings and Arrows, is a reminder to celebrate differences, love yourself and never forget the dancing power of the delta blues. Part Southern rock anthem and part kick-you-in-your-teeth Americana, the record finds Malone urging for social justice while highlighting the intense pains of heartache. Through it all, Malone finds a way to stick true to her rock ‘n’ roll roots, combining her classic slide riffs and drums with brash vocals that are best heard in a live setting. As an Atlanta native, Malone has crafted roadhouse rock that energizes the community and captures the grit of the city. [JM]

Adron: Water Music

Water Music is a magical mix of tropical pop and lulling melodies with one toe dipped in the cool waters of Brazilian-influenced reggae and the other in Afro soul. From the colorful shakers that keep “Home in Human Form” moving, to elegant harp strums that make time stand still in the French-inspired lullaby “Ma Mer,” Adron has left quite a treat for Atlanta before sailing off into the Western sunset earlier this year. Her aquatic odyssey bubbles with a variety of influences and musical styles that float in perfect harmony, creating a tropical paradise complete with superhuman bird whistles. Chord progressions in “Ma Mer” slowly and carefully guide listeners on a haunting tale of love, loss and the lasting effect both have on the spirit. Water Music represents the backbone of Atlanta as a fluid, forever ebbing and flowing ocean of life. [JM]

Ruby Velle & The Soulphonics’ State of All Things offers funk-drenched soul tunes. (Courtesy of Ruby Velle & The Soulphonics)

Ruby Velle & The Soulphonics: State of All Things

Ruby Velle & The Soulphonics’ first record in six years, State of All Things, takes old-soul funk to new heights through the heart-melting voice of Ruby Velle — alongside a sweeping, multi-instrumental free jazz band that delivers the perfect funk-rock accompaniment. In her latest creation, Velle’s lyrics and vocal prowess capture the rich history of neo-soul, R&B and jazz. Lyrically, the album toggles between jaded love on the tracks like “Broken Woman” and an urge for healing a nation in songs like “Lost Lady USA,” which positions itself as both a call to arms and a meditation on the complexities of love. Over the last decade, Ruby Velle & The Soulphonics have gained momentum with songs that lift and engage listeners, but in the case of State of All Things, the band has truly outdone themselves. [JM]

Antarcticats: I Know You Are, But What Am I?

There’s something comforting about surf punk. Maybe it’s the laid-back vibes that come with each guitar strum or the lyrics that reflect some sort of reference to summers spent beachside. Whatever the case may be, Antarcticats goes one step deeper into the nostalgia with a timeless, youthful phrase as an album title. I Know You Are, But What Am I? dives deeper into the group’s already sunny soundscapes by adding Lisa Rossi to lead guitar. The album is about relationships and the ability to move forward, as stated when frontman Andrew Joyce sings, “She makes me feel so solid/When I’m floating away on a cloud/But I can’t get up, it’s already started/So wake me up when it’s all over” on “Pony.” Rossi’s playful guitar chords keep the mood light, while Chris Senador (bass) and Chad Miller (drums) maintain a steady heartbeat — keeping the movement constant and cathartically peaking every so often. [LL]

Tinsley Ellis: Winning Hand

Tinsley Ellis was riding along just fine, releasing albums on his own indie label and being a fixture on the blues/rock tour circuit. He’d already carved out his niche as a guitar hero from the Stevie Ray Vaughn generation with a fan base that stretches across the world. But last year came an interesting proposal: Alligator Records, the renowned blues label that Ellis called home for many years, wanted to release his upcoming album, Winning Hand, and send him out on his first real national tour in two decades. The result was an album that debuted at No. 1 on Billboard Magazine’s blues chart in January, and arguably Ellis’ best work since 1994’s Storm Warning. The record features strong self-penned songs — stand-outs include the meditation on aging, “Autumn Run,” and “Saving Grace,” a beautiful minor-key blues song that evokes the spirit of legendary guitarist Otis Rush — that are fueled by his acclaimed guitar playing. The album was a full house that elevated Ellis to perhaps the highest point of his long and distinguished career. A winning hand, indeed. [SF] 

Goldyard is A.T. and In-Doe. (Courtesy of Goldyard)

Goldyard: Goldyard 

A.T. and In-Doe have released several albums in the past, including the Fuck Culture trilogy. The dynamic duo’s latest self-titled record goes deeper than its predecessors, making waves with upbeat highlight tracks like “Betchu.” Confidence is key here, as stated with lyrics like “Betchu wish your man was me/Who the fuck said we weren’t gonna make it?” While other tracks like “Outro Smooth” show a softer, more sensual side — a hip-hop ballad, if you will, with introspective lyrics like “Gotta know darkness to experience light/Gotta know wrong to know figure out what’s right/Dance with the devil in the pale moonlight.” While many rappers are okay with playing shows and being in the scene, Goldyard isn’t here to settle. With roots in ATL, New York and North Carolina, and five albums since 2014, Goldyard’s ability to produce music and hit the ground running is evident. The duo set out to paint the city gold, and 2018’s album undeniably does just that. [LL]

Cat Power: Wanderer

You can take Chan Marshall out of Cabbagetown, but fortunately, you can’t take Cabbagetown out of Chan Marshall. One of the dozens of musicians who moved into the then-highly sketchy neighborhood in the early ’90s, Marshall worked at the front counter of Fellini’s Pizza on Ponce and fell under the wing of the late, great Benjamin Smoke — the gender-bending singer of the Opal Foxx Quartet and then the group Smoke. Traces of Benjamin’s dark, fragile and smoldering ambiance can still be found on Wanderer, Marshall’s 10th album under her stage name Cat Power. Of all the musicians immersed in the Cabbagetown sound, Marshall is the only one who made a national impact. Part of the allure of her music is that she is never afraid to confront her personal demons in her songs, with lyrics such as “Doctor said I was not my past/He said I was finally free,” and Wanderer is no exception. The album, her first since 2012, is proof positive that Cat Power remains strong and vibrant and undeniable. [SF]